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How can you market your startup more effectively? Offering a free trial of your product or service in exchange for a review on a well-trafficked blog is one creative way.

In a recent article, Palo Alto Software founder Tim Berry equates startup marketing to throwing darts at a dartboard. While existing companies can get away with throwing their “marketing darts” a little aimlessly, a startup has to be more careful and precise.

The established company just has to worry about hitting the dartboard; the startup needs to hit the bullseye.

If precision and focus are the name of the marketing game for startup companies, what is the best strategy for marketing your startup? I asked the members of the Young Entrepreneur Council for their advice on how to market startup companies most effectively.

Listen to Peter and Jonathan interview Candice Landau about content marketing on the second episode of The Bcast, Bplan’s official podcast (at 15:33):
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All these entrepreneurs advocated for employing focus, consistency, and using a variety of unexpected sources, many of which are low cost—always a plus for a new startup.

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1. Determine your marketing goal first

Jeff Chambers of Big Machine Parts recommends asking yourself the following question: “Are you trying to drive sales, build awareness, or build technical credibility?”

Determining what the goal of your marketing is will be an important first step, and will help you focus your marketing efforts. He goes on to suggest that “once you’ve ‘segmented’ your desired outcome by answering that simple question, build a detailed schedule by platform (e.g. Twitter) that includes the message and campaign duration. This prevents the ‘see what sticks’ method and provides a roadmap on what and when to measure.”

Why is specificity so important for startup marketing? There’s much less room for error, meaning that your decisions need to be well-thought out, well executed, and disciplined. “Discipline is more science than art,” says Jeff, and while it does take some discipline to create such a focused marketing plan for your startup, it will ultimately serve you better than unfocused, haphazard marketing attempts.

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2. Either focus on one marketing channel to start, or track each channel you use to make sure they’re all effective

Whereas general marketing advice will encourage you to make use of as many marketing channels as you can reasonably keep up with, Joshua Dorkin of BiggerPockets suggests honing in on just one specific channel at first. “Stop trying to be everywhere, and focus on the marketing channel (yes, just one) that will give you the biggest bang for your buck,” he says. “You can expand out later.”

Why is this? “When you are first starting out, you must focus on the most important channel,” says Joshua. “That channel will likely differ depending on your goals, which you and your team will need to figure out, but start with one channel only.” By focusing on just one type of marketing to start, you can give it your whole attention, and really commit to keeping your marketing on that channel as focused and effective as possible, which may be the best choice for your particular startup.

On the flipside, Nicole Munoz of Start Ranking Now argues to take advantage of multiple channels, as long as they are being tracked to determine which is the most effective. “Take the time to establish several marketing channels that will get the word out about your business, from social media to live events or webinars,” she says. “When you have many ongoing programs, they can all be tracked for efficacy.”

This is another good strategy if you have the staff to accommodate multiple marketing channels, or if you feel that one channel is not enough; this way, you can determine which marketing channel is bringing in the most business early on, and not waste your time on channels that are proving ineffective.

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3. Have a consistent online presence

If social media marketing is part of your strategic plan, make sure you stick to a schedule and post regularly. “Whether you’re marketing your startup through blogs or social media, you must stay committed to your online presence,” says Shalyn Dever of Chatter Buzz Media. “When our company first started, we published a blog post three times a week covering topics from mobile marketing to how-to articles. By publishing content consistently, we built our reputation and positioned ourselves at the top of search rankings.”

Great content, created regularly, can be a form of marketing all on its own, even if you don’t directly mention your product every time. By becoming a thought leader in your field, you’ll be marketing your product or service without even trying.

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4. Understand your customer’s problem even better than your competition

As a startup, you should be deeply familiar with your customer. You should know their needs back to front, understand the problem you are solving, and be able to offer the best solution for a variety of reasons.

This also comes into play with your startup marketing; really dialing into your customer’s needs and understanding the problem you are solving will help your marketing stand out. “The easiest way to create breakthrough marketing in any industry is to understand your customer’s problem better than both your customer and competition do,” says Nick Reese of BroadbandNow. “By being able to articulate it better and see this problem from multiple angles, you’ve got a long-term advantage when it comes to creating high-performing marketing campaigns.”

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5. Have in-person conversations with your customers and with experts in your field

The importance of forming relationships, both with your customers and with others in your network, cannot be undervalued for a startup. “Do customer interviews, meet with marketing influencers in your field, and go to conferences,” suggests Mitch Gordon of Go Overseas.

While networking isn’t usually thought of as a marketing avenue for startups, it can be a great place to get your first true fans. Your early connections will turn into your first customers, so make an effort to build these relationships early on.

“Networking is often overlooked as a marketing avenue, but as a startup, it’s probably where you’ll find your first customers, who in turn become your first evangelists,” says Mark Cenicola of BannerView. “It’s affordable, and allows you to talk to people to get real feedback about your product or service offering.”

Mitch also argues that while it may not seem like building relationships has a direct connection to marketing success, it will in the long run. “Relationships you develop now may take years to show ROI, but it will be worth the investment. Good relationships get you your first customers, who are the first supporters of a startup,” he says.

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6. Focus on SEO by way of good PR

Rather than just focusing on optimizing your website or your blog content for a few key terms, make an effort to build links back to your site by increasing your PR efforts. “Organic SEO is rapidly morphing into PR, as Google demands high-quality inbound links from trusted sources,” explains Marcela DeVivo from National Debt Relief. “A few media mentions can rapidly increase a site’s authority and visibility.”

She adds: “Wasting money and time on low-quality SEO campaigns will not yield results, and investing in paid search or display requires an ongoing investment. Start with great PR, and enjoy the results for years to follow.”

When it comes to public relations, Ania Rodriguez of Key Lime Interactive recommends sending out press releases as a way to raise awareness for your business, and get these inbound links. “Press releases are a great way to get prospects to take note of your offerings,” she says. “Some services offer press releases for free, and others have nominal fees of less than $500 that can promote lead generation.”

If you can’t hire a dedicated PR person for your startup, reaching out to publications you admire and offering to write guest content is a great way to start. Just be careful not to come off as spammy or obnoxious, as you could end up hurting your business more than helping it.

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7. Feature customer success stories

Speaking of PR, customer success stories can be a great way to increase your public opinion and brand visibility. “These stories could be great leads for building your word of mouth and leveraging PR,” says Ben Lang of Mapme. “In the beginning, focus a lot on those stories and make sure to help your users succeed.”

Instead of going for quantity, go for quality, and focus on getting a few stand-out customer success stories about your service or product. You could even offer your first customers a slight discount, a free month of your service, or something similar in exchange for letting you use their story.

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8. Know yourself and your target

You and your target customer have something in common—they have a problem, and you’d like to solve it. “Think of it like dating,” suggests executive advisor and entrepreneur Christie Kerner. “You have to know both who you are and who you are trying to attract to make a solid connection; it wouldn’t be effective to have a dating profile that doesn’t express who you are.”

Remember this when you’re doing your branding; genuinely expressing your brand identity, and clearly defining your target customer will make it easier to market effectively. “You need a strong brand identity,” says Christie. “Then, filter away to define your target demographic, and you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to make the right decisions and draw your clients in.”

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9. Utilize your employees’ social media

While some employers will discourage employees from participating in social media, deeming it unprofessional and at-odds with the workplace environment, for a startup, using your employees’ social media influence to spread the word about your new company can be effective free marketing.

“It is important to have your current employees market the brand they work for by utilizing their social media and contributing to the company’s social media,” says Jayna Cooke of EVENTup. “This is the cheapest and most authentic way to market your startup company.”

If your employees have Twitter or Facebook, encourage them to include information about the startup in their bios, tweet about the brand with relevant hashtags, and retweet or post industry-related news, while mentioning the brand. Not only does this organically increase awareness about your brand, it does so at no cost to you, and your employees will likely appreciate the opportunity to integrate social media into their professional lives, rather than being penalized for the occasional Facebook check throughout the day.

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10. Exchange your product or service for an honest review

In the same vein as featuring customer success stories, reaching out to other thought leaders in your industry and offering them your product or service for free, in exchange for their truthful review, can be a great way to market your startup organically.

Derian Baugh of Men’s Style Lab, lays out the steps needed to implement this creative marketing tactic:

“Reach new customers by finding industry experts who produce the type of content your customers read. Offer them your product or service for free in exchange for an honest review. Make sure to do your research and familiarize yourself with their work. If it’s a good match, you won’t have to explain the value to their readers—they will want to write about you.”

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11. Market your results, not your service

You already know you can provide a better service than your competitors, but focusing on the service may not be the best approach for marketing your startup. Instead, focus on the results, on the tangible good outcomes your customers or clients can expect if they use your product.

Michael Mogill of Crisp Video Group is a fan of this type of startup marketing, and shares his example: “We are a video marketing company. Rather than talking about the cameras we shoot with or the editing software we use, we highlight the online results our videos have achieved for our clients, teach them why video marketing is important, and how it will affect their bottom-line.”

In addition, this tactic ties in well with the use of customer success stories, as mentioned above; let the stories highlight the positive outcomes your customers experienced from using your product or service, and these great results will speak for themselves.

So, there you have it—11 effective, inexpensive marketing tactics to help startups market in a focused, direct way. Many of these tactics can also be used together, which can be even more effective.

Which tactic is your favorite, and what worked well for your business?

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